In early January, more than 6,000 journalists from around the world descended on Detroit’s Cobo Center for the annual Detroit auto show. For three days, they attended parties and briefings, interviewed executives and engineers, and participated in the annual ritual of picking their own personal winners and losers from among the fifty or so new car models on display. They wrote about Toyota’s unaccustomed “swagger” and Detroit’s “fresh thinking,” about Ford’s new muscle car and GM’s beautiful interiors, about the “sporty” Nissan Altima Coupe and the “snazzy” Chevy Malibu. “I just get tingles,” one exhibition-goer told the Associated Press about the new, supercharged Dodge Viper. Micheline Maynard, the Detroit bureau chief of The New York Times, said in an interview posted on the paper’s Web site that for reporters covering the auto industry, the Detroit show “is our Oscar night, our World Series, and our political convention all rolled into one.”
Outside the exhibition hall, however, it seemed like anything but Oscar night. The city of Detroit and the surrounding region were staggering from the effects of the severe retrenchment taking place in the U.S. auto industry. In the months before the show, roughly half of Ford’s 75,000 blue-collar workers in North America had accepted offers of buyouts and early retirement, and GM had let go about 35,000 hourly workers, a third of its U.S. force. Unemployment was up, housing prices were down, and stores on Main Streets in surrounding towns were being shuttered. Yet few of the journalists in Detroit seemed to notice. True, many were beat reporters assigned to write about sedans, vans, sports coupes, and light trucks, but still it’s remarkable how few took note of the really big story at hand—the dramatic demise of an industry that for the last century has been the economic mainstay of the upper Midwest. (To her credit, Maynard did file a story about the gloom that Ford’s woes were causing in Dearborn—a rare acknowledgement of reality amid the overall breathlessness.)
“If you tuned into the Today show or Good Morning America, everything looked so rosy in Detroit,” says Victoria Ekstrand, an assistant professor of journalism at Bowling Green State University in northwestern Ohio. “Yet we’re just an hour to the south, and housing prices here have plummeted.” While the networks have reported on the auto industry’s slump from a business standpoint, she says, they have generally ignored the huge “ripple effects” its decline has had in Toledo and Cleveland and into Indiana and all the way to Chicago. At the auto show, Ekstrand says, journalists seemed “to take whatever the auto industry handed out to them hook, line, and sinker. They got so sucked into the p.r. machine.”
Ekstrand has lived in Ohio for the last five years. She moved there after spending nine years in New York, mostly working for the AP, and three years in North Carolina pursuing a Ph.D. Her time in “the land of the potluck dinner,” as she calls Ohio, has changed her perspective. “It’s one thing to fly in and cover a news event and fly out,” she says. “To understand the full context, you have to live in the community. I understand the country so much better now that I live here.” Unfortunately, she says, since all of the nation’s news networks and most of its top newspapers and magazines are based on the East Coast, “there’s no nationally distributed heartland perspective.” If a network were based in Indianapolis, Cincinnati, or St. Louis, she asks, “what would its coverage look like?”
I’ve been thinking about that question since last fall when I visited Bowling Green to give a talk. It was, I’m chagrined to admit, my first visit to Ohio. Like most New York-based journalists, I’ve glimpsed the Midwest primarily through the window of an airplane. And, like many New Yorkers’ visits to Ohio, mine was fleeting—just two days. That was long enough, however, to make me realize how thin and unsatisfying is the national coverage of this region of twelve states and 66 million people—about 22 percent of the nation’s population.